The government wants to talk to 'real women' about 'real issues'. They could start by providing a creche, says Ann Treneman, as she joins the Listening to Women Roadshow. Photographs by Harriet Logan
Something called the Listening to Women Roadshow has been travelling around Britain. There is only one problem. No one knows what this means. "Is it to do with the BBC?" asks a friend. Someone else guesses that it might be some type of female-only event involving antiques. I tell them that, in fact, it is the government's attempt to talk to "real women" about their "real lives". The invitation is bold, if badly punctuated. "This is your chance to air your views, to let your hair down and to tell it like it is. Remember - don't be shy give your reply." See, I say, it sounds almost like a hen night. My friends remain baffled. "But what does it mean?" they ask. There is only one way to find out - become a roadshow roadie and see what the government is doing in our name.

First stop is Bristol on a thunderstorm of a Friday in mid-April. The event is scheduled from 2-4pm at the Watershed Media Centre. The star is Baroness Margaret Jay. She is the Minister for Women but, perhaps because everyone knows that women are great at juggling two things at once, she is also the Leader of the House of Lords. So the Baroness is a busy woman and there must be a bit of her saying: if it's Friday, it must be Bristol and it must be women. She has a natural elegance but also seems rather distant. She is 59 and, though not a hereditary peer, is a paid-up member of the great and the good. She stands off to one side with her team while us "real women" look around for a table to sit at.

By now I had realised this is one roadshow that involves no road and no show, at least not in the Las Vegas sense of the word. Not that I was expecting dancing girls, of course. And I've completely given up on the idea of a Radio 1 disc jockey screaming bad jokes to a field full of women. But surely there can be no harm in a few warm-up tunes. What about I Will Survive? Or a medley or two from Tammy Wynette? But no. This roadshow involves nothing of the kind. This is a carefully constructed and well- behaved affair. It is run by a "facilitator" and, at its mid-point, "light refreshments" are served. These are tea or coffee and biscuits. A more accurate name for the event would have been the Listening to Women Coffee Hour but that sounds too female, as in too inconsequential, and that will never do.

There are 80 women in the room sitting around 10 tables. Table choice is crucial and we are all surveying the room with the feeling you get at any event where your fate revolves around a seating arrangement. Tables one to five are scheduled to discuss women's incomes. Tables six to 10 will discuss teenage girls. I hold my breath and sit down. I am at Table Seven. Everyone has a pink sheet that includes questions such as "What do you think is the most important issue facing the country today?" and "What do you think is the most important issue facing women today?" A half a page is allowed for each.

We introduce ourselves and "our issues". Everyone seems to have a few. I guess if you care enough to come to something like this in the first place, then you are the kind of person who has cares about things in general and therefore has "issues". There are social workers, teachers, psychotherapists. There is one woman who has formed a group for people whose sex had been misregistered at birth. Evidently this is very hard to get corrected. Suddenly, a woman named Katherine announces that the roadshow is too exclusive. There is no creche and if you are disabled you will have had to come up in the "dirty goods lift". There is hardly anyone here under 30 or from an ethnic minority. "I'm really very concerned that I'm not going to be used and abused for the purposes of some political tossing off," she says. Just then a woman who is from an ethnic minority and named Peaches sits down. She is interested in the New Deal and is in marketing. She has an hibiscus in her hair.

We start to chat and are almost irritated when the writer Bel Mooney interrupts. She is the "host" of the event and tells a story involving potatoes that I don't quite follow. She introduces her friend Baroness Jay as someone who had brought up three children, boils a magnificent potato and "strikes terror into the heart of male journalists". The Baroness then gives a speech in which she talks about whether she is a feminist. "It's always such a difficult question to answer," she says. She doesn't like the idea of women who hate men and who are only interested in women being successful at the expense of men. She then produces a definition of feminism that involves valuing women's multi-level contributions to society and says that if this is the definition then she would call herself a feminist.

The facilitator is terrifyingly strict about what we are to do. Our table is to discuss teenage girls for 15 minutes. She will then give us a "prompt" and we will move on to discussing solutions and how the government can help said girls. Then we will get another prompt to start discussing the most important issues facing the country today. Every table is supposed to elect a spokeswoman and someone should be taking notes too. Our table does not so much rebel against these rules as simply ignore them. We elect no spokeswoman, take no notes, and talk non-stop about teenage girls. Why, asks one woman, does her daughter have such low self-esteem when she is so very young? Why do so many girls fall behind as early as university? Why does the pay gap begin at such a young age? We talk about education, career counselling, sexual violence, the pressure to be thin, pregnancy, the need to have broader definitions of family.

Every table has one chair that is left empty. At first I thought this might be a symbolic gesture of some sort: perhaps it is reserved for our imaginary Cabinet friend. Then I discover that the chair is actually reserved for the minister or someone else from the top table. Bel Mooney drops in, and then Baroness Jay. "Just listening," she says. Peaches says that she thinks it is great that women in the government are listening to women but that men need to listen too. "But if men were at this table, they would do most of the talking," says another woman. The Baroness says that at the end of the Listening to Women exercise, a report would be drawn up and circulated to all male colleagues. Men will have to listen then.

Katherine then challenges the Baroness: "You say that you are listening but are you actually hearing what we say. Why isn't there a creche here? Is this really a consultative exercise?" The Baroness nods. "Yes, it is really consultative. Believe me I could pretend to do all types of consultation and never actually move out of London, particularly on my one spare Friday." Katherine does not seem too impressed. "Well my suggestion is that you have a creche." We go back to talking about teenage girls.

The facilitator interrupts. Our entire table looks guilty. Now is the time for "Feedback". Our spokeswoman is to stand up and report how we had answered the various questions on our pink sheets. This is to be taped and used for the final report to the Cabinet. But we have no spokeswoman, no notes and no answers on our pink sheets. We look at each other and have one of those most-female of conversations where everyone tries to get everyone else to do something while apologising the whole time. Much to our amazement, when Table Seven is called, a woman to my left named Anita stands up and does her best. Her summary is succinct but - like all of the summaries - displays none of the warmth, humour or anger of our discussion. There is more feedback, from the Baroness this time, and then, at 3.55 she is gone.

Next stop, Newcastle, the following Monday, 1.30-3.30pm. The venue is a 15-minute drive out of town at the Holiday Inn near the airport. I immediately think of Katherine in Bristol because such inaccessibility would make her explode. This time the star of the roadshow is Tessa Jowell, who also has to juggle her government jobs in that she is a Minister for Health too. The set-up is the same as Bristol and Tessa gives a speech that has lots of references to listening, hearing and delivering. "We as a government are engaged in delivering for women," she says. The women at my table look at one another. What does that mean?

Suddenly it all seems just too bland. The four women on the top table - the facilitator, the host, the minister and the head of the government's women's unit - are all wearing grey suits that skim the knee and sensible black pumps. The slogan on the podium is "Listening to Women - Better for Women ... Better for All". This is hard to argue with. In fact, it is hard to think about much at all. Later on, another woman tells me that her heart sank when she saw that slogan. "Why not Listening to Women - Better for Women and It's About Bloody Time Too!" she says.

My table is just as rebellious as in Bristol although this time we spend most of our time talking about dyslexia and how it can ruin your life. We also think that the government should repeal Clause 28 (remember that?) and that it cannot be easy for young women who want to be firefighters having to enter the "macho adrenaline" culture. One woman is a lesbian single mother and she talks about the need for proper education about sexuality. Another says that all of this emphasis on teenage pregnancy is just about getting them off benefits.

Sara, who is in her mid-twenties, breast-feeds her newborn baby intermittently throughout the event. She also has another child who is at the creche (yes, Katherine would be pleased by that). She and a young woman named Ruth say that it is vital that the government scrap university tuition fees. "If you've got two children, one girl and one boy, then it is going to go back to the way it used to be. They'll send the boy. That's the way it is for ordinary people," says Ruth defiantly. Sara nods her head and says that it is important, in general, to encourage girls to go on to university. "I've missed it now. Ten years ago, yes, I could have done it. But now I have two kids and I can't get back," she says.

The empty chair is filled by Fiona Reynolds, who is head of the Women's Unit in the Cabinet Office. She busies herself pouring coffee for everyone and I can see that Tessa Jowell is doing the same at another table. It may be gesture politics but there is something very nice about the idea of ministers serving coffee. The conversation keeps on rolling. Then it is time for feedback and, then, at 3.20pm precisely, the minister is gone and the event is over.

As I get up from the table I ask a woman named Helen what she thought. "We had to organise the creche," she says, apropos of nothing. What? "We had to organise the creche," she says, "and it wasn't easy." She says that the women's unit hadn't been too keen when Helen had rung them and said that she thought there should be a creche. "They'd said that it had never been an issue before," says Helen. She says that at first they wanted the women using the creche to pay for it per child but then they finally agreed to fund one. "In the end it only cost pounds 60 for the whole thing. When you consider how much this whole thing must have cost," she says, looking round the tables now empty except for lipstick-stained coffee cups and scribbled pink papers.

How many times had we all heard the words "affordable childcare" over the past few hours? Why is it always so difficult for policy to become practice?

As a roadshow, Belfast is a bit of a blow-out. There are no "real women" in the rather grand room with swag curtains in Belfast Castle. Instead, about 130 women representing everyone from the Chinese community to rural women to the poor stand up and give a mini-speech. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, who is so popular that she is almost an icon here, uses the event to launch a paper on violence against women. But there is little real excitement because this is very much politics as usual.

These roadshows have been organised by the Women's Unit which has the task of making women's concerns heard throughout Whitehall. Why would they want these roadshows? Doesn't the government know what matters to women by now? There are certainly no surprises at the issues that come up: equal pay, pensions, crime, how to balance home and work to name a few favourites. Fiona Reynolds said that the ministers suggested the idea of the roadshow and perhaps it is their way of making the women's agenda visible.

Certainly most observers believe that this government cannot deal with women's issues as such. They distrust the "f-word" and gender politics have been replaced by the politics of the family, the poor etc. But it is also true that this government has done a huge amount for women with the minimum wage, the New Deal, child benefit increases, childcare tax credits and the like. There are 10 roadshows and, in total, they will be attended by some 2,000 women. Certainly most of those will have been pleased to have met a minister and had their say.

But, if the government is listening, are women asking for what they really want?

In Belfast I ask the Women's Unit spokeswoman my usual question about the creche and am told that no one has requested one and so none is provided. It all sounds reasonable when put like that. But later on I ask one of the women who had come to the meeting about childcare in Northern Ireland.

"Oh, there isn't any real childcare! We all know that," she says, looking at me somewhat oddly. She says that she has to run because she has to go and pick up her daughter to drop her off somewhere before she goes back to work.

And then she disappears. Yet another woman juggling the impossible but who simply would never dream of asking for help